Before... Before, truths had been simple. Stokely Mitchell was a lesbian. Stan Rosado was the star quarterback. Delilah Profit was unattainable. Zeke Tyler would end up either dead or in jail within five years. And Casey Connor's most intimate relationship would always be with the flagpole.
After... Well, Casey thinks there are no absolute truths anymore. Or at least they aren't as simple as a nerd, a jock and a freak. Things blurred. Even truths got hazy around the edges.
"From a hero to a hoax in three months, huh?" Stokely mutters and throws the magazine to the floor. She's frowning but she doesn't exactly look upset. It is easier to read Stokes nowadays, but she is still succinct, her gestures and expressions contained.
"Whatever, right?" Stan says, shrugging, tilting his head to the side, watching Casey.
"Yeah. Who needs fame anyway," Casey says and smiles, crosses his arms over his chest.
Delilah's fingers tug at the collar of Casey's shirt. Her small wrist is resting on his shoulder, feeling heavier than it should.
"We still know," Zeke says. "This whole town remembers."
Casey wants to tell them that it doesn't matter. That it's all the same to him what people think about him. But that would have been a blatant lie. It is still okay, though. Casey doesn't miss the fame and the reporters and the feeling of being constantly watched. He has always been more comfortable behind the camera anyway. He glances at Delilah and wonders if she feels disappointed by the loss of eyes on her. She likes being watched, she likes being the centre of concentrated attention. Casey's photographs of her are now all close-ups, so tightly framed that they show only parts of her at a time. A curve of her neck, the corner of her mouth, the slender line of her hips. Even that close up, Delilah is beautiful.
She isn't looking at Casey now, but the corners of her mouth are tugging up, into a small, pleased smile. Delilah loves being looked at and Casey likes looking at her. That's how they work.
"It looks so different here now," Stokely says then, directing Casey's attention away from Delilah. Casey glances around himself. They are sitting in Zeke's garage, the lab now replaced with two couches and a small coffee table. It looks bigger now, their little "clubhouse" as Zeke had said, his lips twisting into a smirk, sarcastic but also, secretly, a little serious.
"Well, drug dealing doesn't really suit my image anymore," Zeke says and grins that easy smile of his, completely false, designed to keep you away. "I'm an accepted member of the community now."
"Yeah, such a good little boy. A good little boy who's playing football and banging a teacher," Stokely says and answers Zeke's smile. "We're so proud of you, Zekey."
"Fuck you, Stokes," Zeke says amiably and leans forward to snatch his pack of cigarettes from the coffee table. His smile looks more genuine now, though.
Casey watches how the fabric of Zeke's shirt sleeve stretches around his shoulder and bicep. He is still lanky but few months of playing football have given him muscle that even his loose shirts and jeans can't really hide anymore. It's a nicely framed picture, Zeke's arm and shoulder and tufts of his hair standing up at the neck, the line of his cheek. Casey imagines how it would look in black and white, in the red light of the photography lab.
He thinks about how he hasn't seen Miss Burke with Zeke, not even once.
He hangs back when the others leave. He can hear Stokes' laughter coming from down the street and he wonders about all the years Before, when he knew her and when he didn't know what her laugh sounded like. He isn't sure what he wants to ask from Zeke, only that he needs to say something. He wants to ask "are you happy?" but he can't. Zeke would only lie. Or tell the complete truth, but Casey would never be able to say which it had been.
"Casey?" Zeke asks, surprised, when he notices him hanging in the open doorway. "Did you forget something?"
Casey bites his lip and shakes his head and then blurts out: "Why did you start playing football?" He doesn't know what answers he could possibly glean from Zeke's reply, but he couldn't think of anything else to ask. Anything else that wouldn't make Zeke angry, at least.
Zeke huffs out a short laugh and turns his back to Casey. "It's something new." Zeke shrugs with one shoulder and bends down to pick up a discarded couch pillow from the floor.
Casey understands that. He felt it too, in the aftermath. He felt the change, had needed the change so much. He had needed to have something that differentiated from his old life as much as he could manage. After everything, things just couldn't have gone back to the way they had been, he wouldn't have been able to deal with the sameness, not when he himself felt so different.
But, in the end, things had turned out not to be that much different after all. Not to the people around them, at least. Sometimes Casey felt like the world had just hit a big reset button and he was the only one that had remained changed. He and the other four.
Or at least he and Zeke.
Zeke had said that the town would remember, but Casey doubts it. The town has almost forgotten already. He wonders if it's only denial or if it's some kind of an after-effect of the parasite. He doesn't know anyone else besides him and Zeke who hadn't gotten infected.
"Do you even like it?" he asks before he can catch himself. What is he trying to do here, trying to get Zeke Tyler to talk about his feelings? Seriously?
Zeke stills for a moment and then turns to face Casey, that stupid smile on his lips that masks his real expression too well. "Do you like your change?" Zeke asks, still smiling.
Casey can't quite meet his eyes.
People are still looking, sometimes. When that happens, Casey takes a tighter hold of Delilah's hand and fixes his eyes firmly to something further ahead of him. He never meets anyone's eyes anymore.
Delilah seems somehow bigger under the gazes, almost like she's shielding Casey from the looks. She feels warm, her body moulding against his side, and Casey has to blink rapidly from staring too hard at nothing.
"I wish high school was over already," he tells her. It seems some things haven't changed after all.
Casey applies to five universities, only one of them in Ohio. He hopes none of the people in any of these schools have ever heard of him.
Zeke is not a graceful or a subtle person. Everything about him, from his appearance to attitude, is made of sharp edges. Despite all of this, he's infuriatingly hard for Casey to read.
Zeke's waiting outside the school, his breath steaming in the harsh winter air. He's leaning against the hood of his new car (and Casey can imagine the conversation that got him the gleaming black Dodge. "Hey, I totalled my car while saving the world. Mom, can I get a new one?" "Sure, darling, anything for my hero." In his head, Zeke's mom always sounds sickly sweet. Casey has never met her). He's buried most of his face in his scarf and his hands are in the pockets of his bulky winter jacket.
At first Casey thinks he's waiting for Miss Burke, but when he sees Casey he straightens and waves to him.
"Hi," Casey says when he gets close enough. The tip of Zeke's nose is red from the cold and he grins at Casey, and whatever else Casey can't tell about Zeke, he always knows when his smiles are genuine.
"Want a ride?" Zeke asks and sniffs, runs the back of his gloved hand over his nose, and sniffs again. Casey wonders how long he has been waiting.
"Shit, you look cold," Casey says.
"Well, I also feel very fucking cold. So want a ride or not?"
"Sure." Underneath it all, Zeke is his friend, after all. And all the distrust and nervousness that has been implemented in Casey during his high school years can't make him turn down a ride home. It's freezing and he's missed the last bus ages ago.
He wonders why he has to keep reminding himself that Zeke really is his friend. It's a little like when he has to remind himself that Delilah really is his girlfriend. It just doesn't feel natural, somehow.
Zeke smiles and glances at him before pulling out of the parking lot. "What are you thinking, Casey?" he asks and turns right, definitely not towards Casey's home.
"That I live in the opposite direction," Casey answers, raising an eyebrow at Zeke.
"Yeah, well," Zeke shrugs and keeps his eyes on the road. "I'm kidnapping you."
Casey watches how the ice crystals on his door window slowly melt away when the air in the car gets warmer. He draws a circle on the window with a finger and considers writing "Help! I've been kidnapped!" next. He would have to write it backwards, though, so people could read it from the outside. It's not worth the trouble and he doesn't really want to go home yet anyway.
"I don't think you can get much ransom money out of my parents," he tells Zeke. "I think they might even be relieved that I'm gone."
Zeke frowns and glances at Casey, but doesn't say anything.
"Did the FBI ever talk to you?" Zeke asks after a while.
Casey nods. He doesn't want to think about the interview. He had felt even smaller than he actually is, sitting before the two agents in suits. And in the end, after the questions had finally stopped, they had told him that publicly they would deny everything. Casey keeps waiting for them to come back, but they haven't. Yet.
"Me too," Zeke says and falls silent again. "Fuck," he swears and shrugs his shoulders like he's trying to shake something off of them. Then he laughs a little. "I don't even know where I want to go."
"Let's just go back to your place," Casey says, even if he isn't completely sure that it's what Zeke meant. He had been vaguely concerned that Zeke would try to get him somewhere public, like a caf‚ or the McDonald's down the street, and he really doesn't want to be stared at today.
Zeke lets out a breath. "Okay."
Casey likes Zeke's house. Well, he likes the parts of it that Zeke has claimed for himself. The garage and carriage house and the basement. They are the places where Casey feels warm and mostly at ease. He can also see how something in Zeke relaxes there, something loosens from his neck and shoulders. Other parts of the house are cold, unused. Almost haunted.
"You want coffee?" Zeke calls from the kitchen while Casey is still trying to get his coat off.
"Do you have hot chocolate?" Casey asks and doesn't even feel embarrassed about how much of a kid he must sound like. His face is prickling in the warmth of the house and his fingertips are tingling.
When he gets to the kitchen, Zeke is getting milk from the fridge. "You're such a fucking kid, Casey," he says, but Casey isn't fooled. There are two mugs on the counter and the coffee maker is silent.
"So," Casey says later, when he has regained the feeling to his toes. "Was my kidnapping a spur of the moment kind of thing or was it premeditated?"
Zeke gives him an odd look, but as far as odd looks go, Casey has gotten worse. This one is soft around the edges.
"Well, I didn't plan it very well," Zeke says and then Casey realizes that he's waiting for Zeke to say something, tell him something. It's in the air, the anticipation of something. Casey isn't sure what to make of it.
Zeke glances at him over the rim of his mug and Casey feels a little dazed, like someone had just slapped him on the back of his head. Casey thinks: "Holy shit," and looks down at his mug instead of Zeke. Suddenly the kitchen feels too quiet. He wants to ask why Zeke was waiting for him today, why Zeke suddenly wanted to spend time with him, but he can't find the right words. Everything he comes up with feels a little too rude. But then he remembers that this is Zeke, not Delilah, and it doesn't really matter.
"What do you want?" he asks. "I mean, why were you waiting for me at the school?" It's not like they hang out that much, mostly they just say hi when they meet in the school hallways and sometimes eat lunch together. It's not like they have suddenly become best friends, even with the occasional "club meetings". And it's never just Casey and Zeke. Mostly it's Delilah, Casey and Zeke. Or Stokes, Casey and Zeke or Stan, Stokes, Casey and Zeke. Or... and Casey is in a loop, his thoughts skittering around nervously.
"I need a cigarette," Zeke says and gets up.
"Okay," Casey says and follows Zeke outside. They sit on the steps in front of Zeke's house. Zeke has brushed the snow away, but it's still cold. Casey doesn't mind. He watches how Zeke lights a cigarette and inhales deeply, his shoulders hunched, curled around the cigarette like he's protecting it. Zeke's ears are red from the cold.
"You want one?" Zeke asks.
"I don't smoke," Casey says, but hold out his hand anyway.
Zeke grins and hands him the one he's smoking. Casey eyes it, rolls it between his fingers. It's somehow delicate, a fragile little stick of death in his hand. Casey inhales, thinking how Zeke's lips were right there just moments ago.
The taste is smoky, dirty and strong and the smoke irritates his throat. Casey tries not to cough, but that just makes him cough more, until his eyes are watering. "I don't smoke," he repeats when Zeke laughs at him, and hands the cigarette back. His fingers smell like smoke.
"Amateur," Zeke laughs and nudges Casey's shoulder with his own. Zeke feels warm, even through his thick winter jacket.
Maybe Zeke is just lonely, Casey thinks. Just like him. Maybe that's what Zeke learned from their ordeal. That it's okay to need other people sometimes. He knows that Zeke won't ever say it aloud, and he doesn't really have to. Casey decides to treat this like it's completely normal, and maybe it is. Casey doesn't exactly know what normal is anymore. And maybe he wants this to become normal for them. Comfortable silence and Zeke's warmth against his shoulder.
Zeke smokes his cigarette and Casey keeps quiet.
It's been dark for a while when Zeke drives Casey home. He can see his mom through the windows of the kitchen and wonders if he missed dinner already. He hesitates for a second before opening the door of Zeke's car. "See you tomorrow at school?" he says. He didn't mean it to be a question, but that's how it comes out.
Zeke flattens his lips tightly together like he's trying not to grin. "Sure. See ya, Casey," he says.
"Delilah called a while ago," his mom tells him when Casey gets inside. "Where have you been?"
"At Zeke's," Casey says and somehow he wishes he could lie about it, like he doesn't want her to know. The whole afternoon feels somehow delicate, just like the cigarette between his fingers. Fragile, but a little bit dangerous. He worries about crushing it if he handles it wrongly.
"That boy," his mom says, a little bit exasperated. Maybe a little bit worried. "How is he doing? I heard he joined the football team. I guess things are better for him now."
Casey shrugs. He doesn't want to talk about Zeke with his mom. She doesn't know anything about Zeke and the way she's assuming that football somehow makes things better is just stupid. Casey doesn't want to explain Zeke to anyone who hasn't seen him bleeding and laughing at the same time, who hasn't seen him defend Casey's life by stabbing their favourite teacher in the eye with a fucking pen.
He calls Delilah.
"Casey, since when do you have a social life?" she asks, but she's laughing.
"I was hanging out with Zeke," Casey says.
"Oh," Delilah says. "Really?" She laughs again, a little bit uncertainly. "Why?"
Because he asked me to, Casey thinks. Because he wants to spend time with Zeke. Because Zeke's interesting. Because he wants to figure him out. Because he wants to be his friend, for real.
"Just..." Casey shrugs, even if Delilah can't see him. "No reason, really. He gave me a ride because I missed the bus."
"How nice of him," Delilah says and Casey knows she's already dismissed Zeke, deemed him one more unimportant part of Casey's life. "So, this weekend. Caroline is having a party and I'd like my boyfriend to come with me. That is, if he isn't horribly busy."
"I guess I can clear my schedule for it," Casey grins. He doesn't feel like going to a party, but he never does. Sometimes it ends up not being that bad in the end. Sometimes it's even fun, when no one looks at him funny or tries to punch him.
"Aww, I love it when you can spare some time for me."
"I'll see you tomorrow," Casey says, smiles so that Delilah can hear it from his voice.
"Yeah, yeah. Bye, Casey."
That night, before going to bed, Casey looks at the photographs of Delilah pinned on his wall. They are all black and white, bigger prints than the old pictures he had taken in secret. Then he takes out the few pictures of Zeke he has, all of them quickly taken, pictures of crowds, of Stokes and Stan and Zeke laughing together, almost accidental shots of their little group. Maybe it's just his imagination, but Zeke seems to somehow stand out in these pictures, like Casey has unconsciously positioned him so that he draws the most attention, that he's the most in focus person in the pictures, like Casey had always focused his camera lens on him. Maybe it's just the way Zeke towers over everyone else, that he's just naturally that guy who gets your attention.
Before... everything, Casey barely thought of Zeke Tyler as a real person. But he always noticed him. But it's not the same as with Delilah, when he becomes nervous and stupid around her, when he wants to be something for her. It's just that he tends to focus on Zeke whenever they are in the same room together. He wants to know things about Zeke, things that no one else does. It's just curiosity about something Casey doesn't understand. That is all.
Casey falls asleep satisfied.